Examining Heterosexual Identity in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

November 15th, 2016

In medieval times sexual acts were “fundamental to an individual subject sense of self” (Dinshaw, 207) and heterosexuality was the structure of normativity.  Dinshaw’s essay analyses the representation of heterosexuality in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by showing how the kisses exchanged between Gawain and Bertilak on the one hand function under the normative system of heterosexuality, but on the other hand the kisses exchanged by the two men threaten that heterosexual identity.

Narrative juxtaposition of the hunt with the bedroom scenes reveal the heterosexual identity by which the poem operates. Bertilak proposes to play a game with Gawain and the conditions that he sets are as follows: every day he will go out to hunt and will give the spoils of his hunt to Gawain – similarly Gawain must give to Bertilak everything that Gawain earns in the castle. The seduction that goes on in the bedroom is then a metaphorical representation of the hunt that is going on in the wild. But Dinshaw points out that it is precisely in these scenes when Gawain’s sexual identity is “unfixed.” In the bedroom he is the one who is passive and is being hunted by the feminine gaze. When she enters the room, Gawain pretends he is sleeping. He is passive while she initiates the action. In this banter between the two, the lady challenges Gawain identity as the knight who is known in the court, and whose name signifies to kiss. In the end of the exchange Gawain must submit to the lady in order to reaffirm his identity (Dinshaw, 212). There is clear reversal of gender roles and it is Gawain who acts like a woman in these exchanges. Similarly, this narrative arc is mirrored in the hunt of the deer. Just as Gawain is being hunter in the bedroom, the deer is being chased in the forest.

These scenes that function simultaneously under the normative heterosexual model of the medieval times, while at the same time the scene disturb that heterosexual identity. The kisses then exchanged by Bertilak and Gawain produces the possibility of homosexual act while at the same time making it in the context of the narrative, unintelligible.


22 Responses to “Examining Heterosexual Identity in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”

  1. Krystal Dillon on November 15, 2016 11:42 pm

    It is interesting to see the ways sexuality plays a role in Sir Gawain. I wondered, because this was my first time reading the text whether or not the kisses he exchanges with Bertilak problematized the heteronormative views of sexuality of the time. Given the text’s success, I wondered the justifications for these scenes not disrupting the ‘heterosexual identity’ as you outline in your post. I can also see the ways in which gender roles are reversed, as you mentioned. I wrote on my post that I was confused why the woman is shown to be the aggressor, and he takes on a more passive role in these scenes of seduction. I really liked your post!

  2. Michelle Coleman on November 16, 2016 1:37 am

    Hi! This is definitely something that came up in my mind as I read Gawain. I immediately thought of how problematic this could have been (or maybe entertaining?). I wasn’t really sure what to think of it, but your post really helped me with this. I think that it’s so interesting that this could be considered a heterosexual act because of the symbolism of the hunt as well as the sort-of bragging that Gawain kissed his wife. The Lord asked him to trade with him whatever he got, so I guess a kiss (in a witty way) counts. Furthermore, like you said (and I never considered), Gawain is actually really passive while the Lady flirts with him. This could be considered feminine, but it could also be the chivalry of a good knight (I thought the latter). You really helped me think about this challenging part of the text that I couldn’t make sense of. Thanks!

  3. sarashafer on November 16, 2016 5:16 am

    I also think related to this is the way the poem ends. Gawain flinchingly submits to the Green Knight and because of this is not able to emerge as chivalrous and brace, which are knightly traits that assert masculinity.

  4. Radheeka Sharma on November 22, 2016 1:38 pm

    You have an interesting response! I looked at the reversed gender roles as maybe something that was not as taboo. I know this is possibly two centuries later but in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, they have some gender roles revered as well and in that time it was also common for only men to be actors in plays. I don’t know how similar this time period is to the one Sir Gaiwan was written in. Then again, the Middle Ages were much more darker or more heavily religious, hinting at the prominence of Christianity in the genre. So, maybe the author was just trying to challenge the norms or gender roles. But I wonder if it could have just been added for comedic purposes and light heartedness. In the end, submitting to the lady just complies to the norm.

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